The largest city nearest to the Colca Canyons is Arequipa (4 hours away by bus), and the largest town within the Colca Canyon area is Chivay. Along the mostly unpaved road west of Chivay that hugs the coast of the canyon are a number of tiny towns and villages, with the final one being the quiet, little village of Cabanaconde. It is from Cabanaconde where condor watching is most convenient and where the major treks begin.
Getting There From Puno
Little did we know that there had been ongoing strikes and violent protests between the Southern Peruvians and miners for the past several years. The Peruvian government had approved a mining company known for contaminating land to mine the area near Arequipa and Puno. Although both Chris and I wholeheartedly support the right to protest, especially in the case of the Tia Maria mining project, we wished our travel dates had not coincided with the citywide shutdowns due to the protests. We met a group of travelers who journeyed from Puno, Peru to Copacabana, Bolivia during the protests; what normally would have taken 4 hours ended up taking 10 hours and involved a lot of walking and bus transfers among crowds, traffic, and burning tires and vehicles.
I did my research on “bus rides from hell” in Peru during strikes and city shutdowns. Because Chris and I were expecting the worse to happen, we were pleasantly surprised that our bus ride from Puno to Chivay was quite seamless.
What was originally a 6am departure moved to 3am to avoid the street closures. By late afternoon we were told there was another time change for a departure at midnight. At 7pm we received a phone call telling us it was now leaving at 10pm. Our 5-hour bus ride was now departing 8 hours ahead of schedule to avoid the strike. Great.
Fortunately our bus was direct. There were no road closures, crazy protests, or fires. We merely suffered an incredibly cold bus ride (imagine 3,000+ meters in elevation, with no heater on the bus!). To put things in perspective, I had to literally peel my blanket off the window because it was frozen stuck to it! Had the bus left on schedule at 6am, we would have arrived in Chivay at a more reasonable time at 11am. Nope. We got dropped off at the town square at 3:30am. We quickly found a hotel that took us in for only 60 soles (~$19), slept for 5 hours, and then headed out in the morning for our next leg—a bus to Cabanaconde.
We actually had no idea how we were going to get to Cabanaconde from the tiny town of Chivay. I just knew it was about a 2-hour ride away. First, we began by loitering around the town square, observing all the tour vans arriving from Arequipa.
My strategy was to find someone going to Cabanaconde and hope to hitch a ride. The first driver we asked just told us to go to the bus terminal, where there would be bus companies for Cabanaconde. Sweet!
Except in South America, advertisements almost always lie. Half the bus companies had signs for Cabanaconde, but none were going that day. WTF?
We walked back toward the main square to look for more tour bus drivers. On the way I stopped in a tour company shop and asked if they had bus tickets to Cabanaconde. The guy gave me valuable information—there was a daily colectivo to Cabanaconde at the bus terminal at 3pm for 6 soles (~$1.90). Just to be sure, I confirmed with two more random tour shops.
As we approached the terminal we heard a man call out, “Cabanaconde! Cabanaconde!” We found our colectivo. Chris and I were the only non-locals in this van. Everyone else was Peruvian and had a shit ton of goods with them. Just when I thought there was no way another person could fit in the van, more people climbed in for a total of ~15 others. I sat in the front on the e-brake for the duration of the ride. And off we went at 3:15 for Cabanaconde, dropping off people in villages along the way and picking up more.
Finally we arrived at our intended destination right before sundown. Our hostel of choice was fully booked which worked in our favor; we ended up staying at a brand spankin’ new hotel down the street for only 40 soles (~$13) per night! The hot showers at Hospedaje Arum Qurpawasi were the best we’ve had in literally a month. It was nice ending our cumbersome journey with a pleasant hotel.
Cruz del Condor
For only 1 sole (~30¢) we took the public bus the next morning to Cruz del Condor, a mirador that boasts not just incredible views of the deep valley, but also gives people the opportunity to spectate giant, soaring condors with 5′ long wingspans!
Just when the mirador began to crowd with tourist vans, we hopped on a public bus around 9:15 for 2 soles (~60¢) back to Cabanaconde to start our hike to Sangalle, commonly referred to as The Oasis.
Sangalle (The Oasis)
They say the Colca Canyons are one of the deepest canyons in the world, twice as deep as the Grand Canyons at 3,270 meters (10,725 feet), but I think that elevation includes the mountains, which shouldn’t count. Although not as majestic at the Grand Canyon, the Colca Canyons were beautiful nonetheless and was worth the hike. It seems as if the most popular trek (and the trek that tour companies do) is a hike down into the canyon with an overnight at The Oasis with a return trip the next morning. It is quite a ridiculous ascent and descent of over 1,000 meters but we opted to do the entire round-trip hike in one day. There are many more options for multiple-day treks through villages but I knew a single day trip would satisfy me.
Even with 20 minutes of getting lost at the beginning of the hike out of town through farmlands and grazing donkeys and goats, we managed to make it down to The Oasis in 2 hours. It was all down, down, and down under the hot sun into the desert canyon, with views of The Oasis growing bigger as we approached it.
Once we reached The Oasis we quickly devoured our pre-packed picnic lunch before taking a dip into one of the pools. One pool seemed to be the pool where all tour operators go, and the other pool was catered for the independent traveler. We went to the pool for the independent travelers for 5 soles each (~$1.60) and had the entire pool to ourselves!
Time quickly passed and we left the pool at 2pm to begin our grueling ascent back to Cabanaconde.
The sun quickly sank behind the canyon walls after 4pm, filling The Oasis with dark shadows. Condors began to soar overhead. The views made up for the tough 1,000+ meters of climb, which took about 3 hours.
We made it back to our hotel just before sunset, exhausted and filthy but satisfied after a packed day of condors, canyons, and The Oasis. The next morning we headed out to Arequipa on a direct 6-hour bus for only 15 soles (~$4.75). Tourists rave about Arequipa, the second largest city in Peru, and I looked forward to city comforts after spending time in the towns of Puno and Cabanaconde.